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An interactive Blog and Podcast produced by Garry M. Spotts Consulting

Mentoring By Creating Teachable Moments

The prevailing myth about mentorship is that it presupposes a positive impact when in fact mentorship is simply the power to influence. A mentor’s influence can be destructive or constructive; ultimately it is the character and intent of the person exerting an influence that determines the quality of mentorship.

The key role of a positive mentor is to draw out of the mentee their best natural qualities. An effective mentor works to hone the mentee’s learned skills and empowers them to influence others in the same positive way.

There is an ancient proverb that says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.” The implication is that like sharpens like, and each party’s ability to relate to the other is critical to the effectiveness of a mentor’s relationship. In other words, there must be a common ground from which to launch a mentor-mentee relationship. Once relatability has been considered and established, then you can progress to the first rule of effective mentorship.

# 1 Rule of Mentorship

The first rule of effective mentorship is, to define your intent. In his book, Man’s Quest For God, Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, said “The world is not derelict, life is not a neutral ground. In this life of ours the undirected goes astray, the haphazard becomes chaotic, and what is left to chance is abandoned.” It is impossible to mentor effectively without clear intent of what your mentorship will produce. Quality mentorship is at the same time purposeful and intentional in its direction and directing. Fail to define your intent, and you have failed before you have started.

Image of two men sitting at a table talking
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It is not necessary to write a lesson plan or to draft a syllabus to effectively define your intent. Decide what you believe and the things you do which empower you to live well and maintain healthy relationships with others. Think about what you value and how your values impact your decisions.

Once you have examined your thought process, you will discover the substance of your intent as a mentor. A word of caution; your mentee may be the victim of either their own poor decision-making or someone else’s, resulting in a learned lack of trust. So bear in mind that he or she may not trust your decision-making until you demonstrate that it can be trusted.

Effective mentorship is contingent upon two critical qualities that both the “mentor” and the “mentee” must possess. There are no limits to the potential for your mentoring relationship if you both share a willingness to learn and a willingness to change.

The Mentor’s Willingness to Learn

We assume that the mentor must first and foremost be willing to teach. Actually, the mentor must first be willing to learn from the mentee. How does he or she relate to what you intend to share? You must learn how to communicate in a way that the mentee can understand and is willing to learn. In instances where you do not share a common ethnic, political or socio-economic background it is essential to learn how to influence in ways that are not patronizing, paternalistic or offensive.

The Mentor’s Willingness To Change

The nature of the relationship suggests that the person most in need of change is the mentee. Yet the mentor must be willing to embrace the changes necessary to become effective with the person they are mentoring. Learning how to challenge a mentee that ignites a desire in them to grow rather than causing them to recoil may prove a daunting task, but it is also doable.

The mentor must see the value of learning and changing so that they can grow and become more effective. Learning always precedes positive change, positive change always precedes growth and growth is the only evidence of vitality and life.

The Mentor as a Learning Partner

Effective mentors partner with their mentees by sharing their personal growth experiences when they apply to specific events in the mentee’s life. It is by discovering, recognizing, or creating that ever elusive “teaching moment” in the mentoring relationship that separates the Big ‘M,’ Mentors, from the little ‘M,’ mentors.

An effective mentor learns how to create “teachable moments” in their relationship. Beth Lewis, Education Guide writer at says, “A teachable moment is an unplanned opportunity that arises in the classroom where a teacher has an ideal chance to offer insight to his or her students. A teachable moment is not something that you can plan for; rather, it is a fleeting opportunity that must be sensed and seized by the teacher.”

While I concur that it is “an ideal chance to offer insight…”, we part ways on her statement that it is an “unplanned opportunity…” for the mentor. This is the primary distinction between an effective mentor and a professional teacher. An effective mentor can create teachable moments in ways that a teacher with a class of 30+ students, a curriculum, a daily lesson plan, and rigid performance standards cannot because the mentor is free of these imposed constraints.

Creating the Teaching Moment

As a young man I was first mentored by my martial arts teacher, “Uncle Sonny,” I saw him create countless teachable moments. He demonstrated this to me on many occasions. One notable instance occurred when we were returning from a movie theater, after having watched the latest Kung Fu “Flick”. As we waited for traffic to allow him to exit the parking lot, a woman paused and motioned for him to enter traffic. He entered traffic and told me to look back at the woman.

Her facial expression and her hand gestures suggested that he had done something that angered her. I didn’t understand what had just happened. He asked me, “Does she look angry?” “Yes,” I replied. He continued, “She is angry because I didn’t throw my hand up as a gesture of thanks for her letting me into traffic.” He paused for a moment to let me decide whether he was right or wrong for his transgression.

Then he asked me a question, “Why did she allow me into traffic, because it was the right thing to do, a good thing to do to show kindness, or because she wanted me to thank her so that she would feel good about her good deed?” He never answered it. He allowed me to wrestle with the question for the answer. That teaching moment happened decades ago. I have recounted it to the people I have mentored both professionally and personally since the day I learned that lesson.

Uncle Sonny created a teachable moment, for a 13-year-old boy who was willing to learn and eager to change to become a great martial artist. What Uncle Sonny did was clearly intentional, and it reflected that he had learned me and changed as necessary to partner with me to make me a better person. While I no longer actively practice martial arts, I daily practice the things he taught me as an effective mentor.

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